THE ATTACK ON PALEMBANG, JANUARY 1945
The strikes were flown by 857, 849, 854 and 820 Squadrons Avengers with four 500lb bombs each, escorted by 1834, 1836, 1830 and 1839 squadron Corsairs and Hellcats, Seafire FF.IIIs of 887 squadron, and Seafire L.IIIs of 894 squadron. Preceded and followed by No.1770 squadron Fireflies and 1833 Squadron Corsairs. The Mana strike and escort was flown by 857 Squadron Avengers and 1844 Squadron hellcats. Fighter Ramrods were flown by Corsairs of 1833, 1830, 1834 and 1836 Squadrons.
Hellcat Mk.II: 1839 and 1844 NAS, HMS Indomitable;
Corsair Mk.II: 1836 NAS and 47 NFW, HMS Victorious;
Seafire Mk.III: No. 849 Sqn, HMS Indefatigable;
Firefly Mk.I: 1770 NAS, HMS Indefatigable;
Avenger Mk.II: 849 NAS, HMS Victorious; 845 NAS, HMS Illustrious;
Walrus Mk.I: No. 1701 Sqn, HMS Victorious;
Ki-43-II Hayabusa: 26. Hiko Sentai, Palembang AB; 33. Hiko Sentai, Birsun AB;
Ki-44-II Shoki: 87. Sentai, Lembark AB;
Ki-45 KAlb Toryu: 21. Hiko Sentai, Palembang AB;
Ki-21-II Type 97 Bomber „Sally“: 58. Hiko Sentai
The original plan was for the British Pacific Fleet to appear in force in Australian waters on New Year’s Day 1945, but this was over-optimistic and the morale-boosting arrival of a large fleet was put back to the end of the month. Meanwhile, it was decided that en route to Sydney, Illustrious could attack Palembang, the large complex of oil refineries in the east of Sumatra. This was a decision only arrived at after some soul-searching at the Admiralty, as many senior naval officers felt that the target was beyond the resources and the experience of the Fleet Air Arm at the time.
Palembang was a difficult target as it entailed aircraft flying over 150 miles of enemy-held territory, across mountain ranges and dense tropical jungle, so that the crew of any aircraft in distress would have difficulty baling out, let alone trying to make a forced landing. The area was also home to substantial numbers of Japanese fighters, and a combat training ground for fighter pilots whose instructors included many veterans from the Japanese carrier fleet. On the other hand, Palembang was also a very important target, with two major oil refineries at Pladjoe and Soengei Gerong. Thanks to the actions of American submariners, oil was now becoming a major problem for the Japanese, and that made an attack on Palembang all the more tempting.
By November 1944, the Royal Navy had assembled four of its fast armoured carriers at Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, with Rear Admiral Sir Philip Vian in command of the carrier force, in British terms, RAA, or Rear Admiral Aircraft Carriers. The four ships were Illustrious, Victorious, Indefatigable and Vian’s flagship Indomitable. By this time, the aircraft available had changed, very much for the better. The poor performance of the Barracuda had seen it replaced by the potent Grumman Avenger, while another aircraft from the same stable, the Hellcat, was the fighter for the fleet. The Corsair stayed on as a fighter-bomber. A new arrival was the Fairey Firefly fighter-bomber, Fairey’s latest offering to the Fleet Air Arm and a successor for the Fulmar that had been so outgunned and outpaced during the fighting in the Mediterranean.
Navigation in poor weather and radio discipline had proved to be problems with the Sumatra raid in December 1944, and before attacking Palembang, the Royal Navy decided to hold a dress rehearsal.
Before this, on 4 January 1945, aircraft from Illustrious, Victorious, Indomitable and Indefatigable were sent to attack oil refineries in north-eastern Sumatra, maintaining the pressure on Japanese oil supplies.
On 13 January, the day of the rehearsal for the raid on Palembang, the British carriers were sent to sea, steaming in the Indian Ocean to the east of Ceylon, and spent the day making attacks on the island. Both Colombo and Trincomalee, or ‘Trinco’ to British sailors, were subjected to repeated heavy attacks, while every airfield on the island was strafed by fighters in what became known as ‘fighter ramrod’ operations. The Royal Air Force and shore-based Fleet Air Arm units in Ceylon were fully up to strength and were sent up to intercept the carrier-borne aircraft. Every carrier pilot managed at least three sorties, some flew four, and despite the confusion in the air, there were no collisions, something which one naval pilot viewed as miraculous. Unfortunately, under such intensive operations and with pilots becoming tired, complete safety could not be guaranteed.
At 15.30 the four carriers turned for China Bay and by 16.30 the last aircraft were landing on. Hanson was amongst the last and as he waited, he watched in horror as one of his comrades, Sub Lieutenant Graham-Cann, ‘normally a safe and dependable deck lander, he made a bit of a mess of this one and drifted up the deck, failing to catch a wire’. The aircraft hit the crash barrier strung across the deck full on, with the force of being so suddenly arrested, unhooked the aircraft’s belly drop tank which swept forward to be cut in two by the propeller. A sheet of flame burst out and was swept aft by the wind over the carrier’s flight deck. Unharmed, Graham-Cann jumped out of his cockpit, stood on the wing as if planning to jump forward, but changed his mind and jumped aft, slipped on oil, doubtless from a ruptured pipe on the stricken aircraft, and fell on his back into the flaming aviation fuel. Now burning fiercely, he got to his feet and staggered down the deck, to be caught by the deck party and wrapped in blankets before being taken to the sick bay. He was still alive but horribly burnt as the ship entered harbour, but died just as he was carried up the gangway of the hospital ship.
The impact of this on those still in the air can be imagined. There were at least nine of them, and unable to land until the fire on the flight deck was put out and the wreckage removed. They were now running low on fuel, so Hanson spoke to the ship’s fighter direction officer and requested permission to take the remaining aircraft to the air station at China Bay, where they could refuel and await further instructions. Permission was granted. Their troubles were not over, as on landing they discovered that the monsoon rains had found their way into the station’s fuel tanks, so refuelling had to be done through a chamois leather, a long and tedious process. As they lay on the grass well away from the aircraft and smoked, a dispatch rider came up with orders to return to Illustrious. Hanson sent away those aircraft that had already been refuelled, and finally it was his turn and that of another pilot, Sub Lieutenant Rogers. Rogers took off a quarter of an hour before Hanson. As he approached the ship, Hanson saw a splash off the ship’s port quarter, but thought little of it, guessing that an Avenger had dropped a hooked-up depth charge. He landed and as he walked along the deck from his aircraft, Commander Flying leant over his bridge and beckoned to Hanson to come up to him.
‘Hans, how many are there still to come?’
‘None, sir. I’m the last.’
‘What about Rogers?’
‘Left just- well, ten or fifteen minutes–before me, sir.’
‘Then he’s the one.’
‘One what, sir?’
‘The one who’s just crashed. Went in on his approach turn.’
The splash that Hanson had seen had been Rogers’ aircraft after he had lost flying speed on his approach turn. The much-needed exercise had cost the Pacific Fleet two pilots within an hour.
The day of the attack on Palembang arrived. On 24 January 1945, at 06.00 on a dark and unpleasant morning with occasional squalls of rain, Hanson found himself strapped into his Corsair at the head of the aircraft ranged on the flight deck. He noticed a burst of black oily smoke as the engine room personnel flashed up additional burners to increase the carrier’s speed. Commander Flying, ‘Wings’ to Fleet Air Arm personnel, called on the tannoy: ‘Fighters start up!’
The Corsair pilots simply had to press their starter tits, and as the engines revved up in clouds of blue smoke, Illustrious turned to starboard into the wind. Then it was time to go. Within five minutes, fighters, fighter-bombers and bombers were in the air and milling around as they got into their formations.
This was the Royal Navy’s second massed aerial attack after the raid on Sumatra on 4 January. The British Pacific Fleet was to the west of Sumatra off Engano Island. There were a small number of aircraft that didn’t get into the air, mainly from Victorious and Indefatigable, but all in all there were forty-three Avenger bombers, each with a 2,000-lb bombload, with a top cover fighter escort of sixteen Corsairs and below them a middle cover of sixteen Hellcats and eight Corsairs, with another escort of twelve Fireflies ahead of the main force, and finally a stern escort of eight Corsairs, led by Norman Hanson. All in all, 103 aircraft, already a smallish force by the standards of the day.
As the aircraft climbed to cruising altitude, three Avengers suffered technical problems and had to return to HMS Victorious. Altitude was essential as the aircraft had to cross a 10,000 feet high mountain range on their way to the target. All in all, they had to fly some 200 miles. The Avengers with their heavy bombloads were slow in the climb, and the fighters had some trouble waiting for them, throttling back to 150 knots. Realizing that as they climbed, they could well appear on Japanese radar, Hanson took his eight Corsairs out of line to allow them to build up their speed so that if they encountered Japanese fighters, they would not be sitting ducks. As the Avengers reached the required altitude, Hanson was shocked to find that the Fireflies were missing and that his aircraft comprised the entire low cover for the bombers. He couldn’t break radio silence to discover the whereabouts of the Fireflies who were supposed to be providing forward or bow cover. In fact, a starter problem on the leading aircraft had held up everything behind it ranged on the deck, but the Fireflies were later to catch up.
Flying at 13,000 feet with the bombers, the aircraft flew over dense jungle broken only by the mountain ridges running down into the vegetation. The fighter pilots kept sweeping the sky with their eyes looking for Japanese fighters. Then, suddenly, they could see the massive oil refinery, the size of a town, straight ahead.
The radio silence was broken by top cover warning of fighters: ‘Rats! Eleven o’clock up!’
The Avengers were by this time getting into position for their bombing runs as the fighters wheeled round to tackle the oncoming Japanese fighters. Hanson turned towards a Japanese fighter and fired, although he was never sure whether or not he had hit the enemy aircraft. Then there was a further warning of ‘Rats, three o-clock up!’ This time two Japanese fighters came streaking in, and one flight of four Corsairs turned on one of them while Hanson led his flight towards the other, and was pleased to see bits falling off the Japanese aircraft before it fell downwards. The loss of the Fireflies was being felt by this time, for not only did this place extra pressure on the other fighters, but part of their role was to race in ahead of the Avengers and shoot down the barrage balloons tethered over the target area. They did arrive, nevertheless, to take part in the air battle that was soon in full flood.
The Corsair pilots were kept busy, mainly by ‘Oscar’ and ‘Tojo’ fighters–Nakajima Ki43 and Ki44–of the Japanese Army Air Force, but their efforts were not in vain as they kept most of the fighters from the bomber formation. The defences would have put up even more fighters, but a fighter ramrod attack by Corsairs across an airfield destroyed thirty-four Japanese aircraft on the ground. As the fighters turned to regroup for the flight back to the carriers, heavy black smoke was starting to obscure the target –the bombers had done their work well. The Japanese fighters continued to press home attacks as the attack force withdrew, but the constant harrying fell away as the formation reached the sea. There was relief all round as they came upon the fleet, with the four carriers in a square formation around the two battleships, and already turned into the wind waiting to receive the returning aircraft. This was another hazardous operation as two aircraft could easily approach the ship from different directions and, while turning as they started their approach, fail to see each other as they banked.
Of the aircraft that reached Palembang, six Corsairs, two Avengers and a Hellcat were lost. This was not bad for a target that had been well defended.
The original plan had been to make a second strike at Palembang on the following day, but bad weather once again intervened and delayed the operation. Each morning the tannoy would burst into life at 01.00 and announce that the operation had been postponed for another twenty-four hours. It was not until 29 January that the aircraft were once again climbing away towards the mountains. The intervening period had not been wasted, as the squadron commanders carried out a post mortem on the first operation. Once of the main complaints was that the fighters in middle cover should have given better protection to the bombers instead of looking for fighters to engage in combat. This was also a criticism made of the Luftwaffe’s fighters by bomber crews in the Battle of Britain–the temptation to look for a duel rather than simply warding off fighters and stopping them from breaking up the bomber formation. Once again, it was stressed that it was vital that the barrage balloons be shot down before the attack developed. Poor radio discipline once silence was broke was yet another point. Even so, on the second raid, two Avengers were lost when their wings caught barrage balloon cables.
Overall, during the two strikes on Palembang, the Fleet Air Arm lost a total of forty-one aircraft, of which sixteen were lost in air-to-air combat, another eleven ditched near the fleet, including Hanson’s aircraft returning from the first strike and as a result of which he was judged medically unfit for the second strike, while another fourteen aircraft were lost in deck landing crashes. Against this, it was estimated that thirty-eight enemy aircraft had been destroyed on the ground and another thirty had been shot down. Most important, while Palembang was not completely destroyed, production was seriously affected for some months.